A fun game to play during IBMA week every year is to keep a tally of how many different versions you hear of specific songs from buskers all the way up to the main stage at Red Hat Amphitheater. You’re guaranteed to hear the likes of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Knoxville Girl,” and “Pretty Polly” more than once throughout the weekend. Such is the nature of bluegrass, where songs get passed down, handed around, and preserved by the community.
But one cover that sticks out most prominently in Raleigh is “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s mega-hit. It’s had particular sticking power in North Carolina, both for its opening nod to “the land of the pines” and its oft-hollered declaration, “If I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free.”
But here’s the thing, ye pickers and grinners: Everybody does “Wagon Wheel.” Sure, you may get plenty of whoops of recognition, but wouldn’t you rather earn those cries for creativity rather than leaning on an exhausted, loved-to-death tune? Here are some suggestions to help your set stand out a little differently.
Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”: A dulcimer drives the shimmering instrumental melody of this cut from Mitchell’s classic LP, Blue, but those notes would sound just as pretty on a mandolin, too. There are even some flourishes at the end that leave room for a spry picker to show off their chops.
Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana”: Here’s one for the truly ambitious musicians who want to hop all the way out of the box: an eight-minute instrumental jazz number originally recorded on piano, bass, and drums. A groovy bassline slithers beneath Jamal’s playful cascades across the piano. There’s enough happening here that everyone could take a ripping solo or two (or maybe even three?).
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark”: “Fishin’ in the Dark” was a No. 1 hit for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1987, and there’s no reason why this springy and delightfully devilish tune about a nighttime romp can’t work for you, too. Get a little more mileage out of that harmonica in your back pocket by taking this song for a spin.
Randy Travis’s “Send My Body”: Not only will you get some strong throwback North Carolina cred here, but “Send My Body” hits most of the same points as a lot of other bluegrass, folk, and country tunes: trains, a miscarriage of justice, wrongful death. It’s dark but plenty peppy, chugging along like the locomotive Travis hopes will deliver him home again.
Dolly Parton’s “Working Girl”: Sure, Dolly Parton put out a bluegrass record in 1999, but why not jump for one of her incredible originals? “Working Girl” comes from the same LP that blessed us with “9 to 5,” and it’s a fierce ode to women who do all kinds of toiling, from stay-at-home moms to those with the executive corner suite.
Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues”: Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter wrote this anti-racist, anti-capitalist anthem in 1937, but its messages resonate as though it were written in 2017. It makes for a fitting nod to the class-consciousness of bluegrass’s progenitors as well as the current calamity of economic inequality in the United States.
Kacey Musgraves’s “Space Cowboy”: Musgraves’s Golden Hour is one of the best records of the year so far, so why not coast on her popularity a little bit? “Space Cowboy” is a gorgeous, clever song that pulls on twangy tropes for a refreshing new kind of kiss-off (and check out that sparkly banjo line!).
The Avett Brothers’ “At the Beach”: The Avetts were never quite “proper” bluegrass, and they certainly aren’t now. However, there are plenty of songs from the early part of their catalog that could fit neatly in a bluegrass set (with the added bonus of that much-desired home-state credibility). The band’s earnest celebration of the Carolina coast holds up well.
Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”: The old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is true of Pride’s 1971 hit. Its easygoing air is still charming nearly fifty years later, and this one’s bound to get you in the good graces of classic country fans.
Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine”: Cheeky covers of pop songs abound in bluegrass, but this one is enough of a curiosity that it won’t elicit any groans. Apple’s original is slow, slinky, and spacious, leaving plenty of room for intrepid experimentation with a new toolkit of timbres. Maybe even try some yodeling on the bridge? (Actually, don’t do that.)